How To Deal With A Difficult Mother In Law

difficult mother in law

I told my mother in law that my house was her house, and she said, “Get the hell off my property.” ~ Joan Rivers (Tweet this)

Ah, the difficult mother in law. They have always been a source of good laughs, high blood pressure and inspiration for some of the funniest TV shows and movies we’ve ever seen. But it’s not always funny. For us, women, a difficult mother in law can be a nightmare like no other.

I feel like here is the time to apologize to all the great in-laws who teach their sons to put their wives first, and look after the kids anytime we need them to—no questions asked. This is not an article about you, so feel free to look away and let us focus on the real problem.

So what is the real problem?

Here it goes: whether we like it or not, our husband’s mother will always be the “other woman” in his life and no amount of effort on our side will take this away. So if she’s the typical difficult mother in law, our personal life will be difficult as a result.

Even though men are more vocal about their mother in law issues, a study quoted by The Guardian shows that over 60% of women are stressed and unhappy because of their relationship with their partner’s mother. The research uncovered all kind of “monster-in-law” behaviors, from the more common ones to pre-wedding e-mails like: “What you don’t realize is that my son thinks about me every day, every minute of the day, every second of every minute of the day.” We all wish good luck to that bride.

The good news is even though the problem seems unsolvable and the situation looks hopeless, Wisdom Times does not take “no” for an answer, so we dug deep to find potential ways out of this uncomfortable position. And no, they don’t include a shotgun!

I went from resenting my mother in law to accepting her, finally to appreciating her. What appeared to be her diffidence when I was first married, I now value as serenity. ~ Ayelet Waldman (Tweet this)

Actually, when we first started looking into the issue, we discovered a shocking twist in the “difficult mother in law” plot. Turns out more than half of the mothers-in-law are also very unhappy about their relationship with their new-found daughter. So the first part of our article is exploring who’s who after you say “I do,” or in other words, could it be that it’s all your fault . . .

Is it your mother in law?

The first sign to help you understand whether it’s really her is to notice whether she’s generally a difficult person. It is very rarely that someone is easygoing in one area of their life and completely different in another. Notice the way she behaves with others; what she says and likes; whether she’s generally a positive or a negative person. Try to disassociate yourself from emotion when you are looking for the truth.  Imagine you are a third person, someone entirely impartial.

Another way to understand if she really is the difficult mother in law you believe her to be, is to notice how she behaves with her son. If your husband has brothers or sisters, it’s a good idea to see her attitude towards them, but if not, imagine you are that third impartial person again. Don’t forget, it’s normal she demonstrated some kind of affection. After all, this is the child she raised. But it’s relatively easy to notice the difference between the common expression of mother-son love in that age and obviously inappropriate demonstrations.

For example, a hug and a kiss for “welcome” and “goodbye” or a pat on the back for good news or support is perfectly okay. Smothering him with kisses and talking to him like he is five years old is certainly not.

Then of course, the way she talks to you is a big one. Maybe you hear her say things to you that she would never say to anyone. If you think so, ask yourself would she say something similar to someone else? When you notice all those things you can be sure if you are in fact dealing with a difficult mother in law or whether it is actually . . . you.

Did you realize that when you married your Prince or Princess Charming, you inherited the king, the queen, and the whole court? In a real sense, you did marry the whole family. Despite all the “in-law/out-law” jokes, in-laws play a significant role in how your marriage goes. Healthy in-law relationships are a wonderful blessing in any marriage. Unhealthy in-law relationships can be a continual drain and irritation.

Dr David Stoop and Dr Jan Stoop, from the book, “The Complete Marriage Book

Is it you?

It is difficult for us to see our own mistakes. This is why the realization that you are not exactly a dream daughter in law may come as a shock and could be a hard pill to swallow. But if you truly want a change, you have to be willing to change yourself, too. So let’s dive in and see if and what you can work on.

A good way to understand how you are carrying yourself in the world is by bringing awareness to your emotions. You may think those are hidden inside you and that they don’t directly affect your behavior, but you are wrong.

Do you often feel angry, bored, disappointed, tired, sad, scared or in any other negative way? If yes, chances are there are much bigger problems you need to address before handling the one with your “difficult mother in law.” In fact, I am pretty sure that if you get in touch with more positive emotions, the mother in law dilemma will solve itself.

The good news is your only job is identifying what is really the cause of your bad mood. Then enter Wisdom Times and our treasury of articles will give you all answers. 

Another method to see whether the issue is really you and your behavior is asking your close friends if you have been easy to talk to lately. The first thing to consider here is “don’t kill the messenger.”  If you get the courage to ask the question, have the courtesy to deal with the answer. Take this feedback and work on it.

Is it both of you?

In most cases of daughter and mother in law not getting along, the reason is they both have some internal work to do. This makes perfect sense when you think about children choosing spouses like their parents. What’s more, there is a good chance that you both have very similar strengths and weaknesses, though expressed in different ways and in this different day and age.

For example, the resemblance between me and my husband’s mother is obvious: we are both entrepreneurs by heart, loving and slightly neurotic. This is not an entirely relevant example, because we actually get along quite well, but if we didn’t, I could totally use her as a mirror and see what to fix in myself.

“But why would I fix myself if she’s not doing anything to change” some women would ask. Because change should start somewhere in order for it to occur. The thing is, most people “react” to whatever their environment presents to them. So when you get certain behavior from a difficult mother in law, you react to it and then she reacts to your reaction and so on and so forth. If and when you chose to act differently and do that for a while (sometimes certain reactions become habits and it takes time to change them) she will start changing as well. And wouldn’t you love that?

If she turns out to be more difficult than expected though, worry not. Later in this article I will provide very specific instructions on what to do about it and I can practically guarantee it will work.

The bottom line

Regardless of which one of you is more difficult to get along with, there are reasons behind you two not having a great relationship and they fall beyond just your characters. Identifying who the problem is coming from will still help, but another thing that you should find out is what really bugs you. There are many causes of mother-daughter in law misunderstandings, which we managed to neatly fit in the following two categories:

#1. You (both) want proof that you are (more) significant

At the end it all comes down to this. Usually, it’s the mother in law who starts that eternal catch-22, because she is afraid she will be forgotten, now that her son has another woman in his life to love him and take care of him. If you think about it, this might be a fear that you will experience some day too.

But you’re not thinking about this now. The moment your new mother shows herself as too possessive, you immediately take on the defensive to demonstrate that it’s now your turn to build a family. This only justifies her fear that you are trying to take him away, so she showers him with attention the way only mothers can and tries to keep you aside, which only pisses you off even more and so on and so forth. You get it, don’t you?

#2. You are way too different

You’d think this can’t really happen, because men usually end up choosing a wife exactly like their mother, but there’s one other option: choosing exactly the opposite. In this scenario neither you, nor your mother in law, are worried about sharing his love, but every time anything important is discussed your opinions are on two opposite ends.

If you are a career woman, who wants to put off having children; and she’s always been a housewife and a loving mother, she just won’t get you. And what about you being vegetarian and the fact that she makes the best roast in the city? Whatever it is, anytime you two meet it’s “Clash of the Titans” all over again.

Did you recognize yourself in any or both of the above? Good. Now that you’re aware of what’s going on underneath the surface, you can act accordingly. Not sure how? Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.

So what can you do?

There are two ways to go about fixing your relations with your mother in law. While we can’t guarantee you two will become best friends after you following our advice, there’s a big chance that things get a lot better. Of course, this will also positively affect your relationship, since no man in the world likes it when the two women in his life are fighting. In fact, I’m sure if we were to do a research, that would be in Top 3 nightmares a guy is afraid of. So let’s fix it.

1. Focus on you

If you lack confidence, you probably need the constant approval of everyone and you find her behavior impossible to accept. The truth is, if you knew just how amazing you are and how much your partner loves you, you wouldn’t see your mother in law as that much of a problem. Try to work on your emotional intelligence a bit more. It will make a difference.

2. Meditate

You can say that’s practically a part of the first advice, but it’s so important that we decided to make it a separate point. Meditation is a technique that quiets your mind and lets you see the big picture. And the big picture is you have a wonderful man by your side who loves you, even though his mother made him think no one is good enough for him.

Meditate to become bigger than the problem and definitely meditate when you know you and your mother in law are about to meet.

3. Talk to your husband

If you feel like you deserve more attention, the right way to do it is not by trashing your mother in law or by trying to make your husband take a side. Talk to him about what you really need! Maybe if he compliments you more often, takes you places, organizes surprises once in a while or just remembers to call you and ask if you need anything from the store before he heads back from work, then you’d feel a lot better in the relationship and it would make it easier for you to handle his difficult mother.

Most people don’t realize the extent to which the marriage they create is a product of the marriage they observed growing up. For better or worse, every husband and wife brings behaviors, beliefs, quirks, and roles into their marriage that they’re not even aware of.

Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, I Love You More

4. Think about the positive

Sometimes, when you’re going someplace you don’t really like, you start preparing for how bad it will be and how you can’t wait for it to be over before you get your foot out the door. If you’ve heard about the Law of Attraction, you already know that can’t end well.

Even though you shouldn’t try to fool yourself about the things you know you will happen, there has to be something positive about you visiting his parents. Maybe they live in a town where you have friends you haven’t seen in awhile. Or your mother in law is a really good cook. There’s always something positive, so try to find it and next time the inevitable happens, focus on that.

5. Give her a compliment—or a few

When we dislike someone, it’s hard for us to even consider complimenting them. However, a good word can do miracles. If your relations aren’t good, which we suppose they aren’t, she will never see it coming and it will make her act a bit differently. Even if it doesn’t work the first time, if you compliment her a few times, there’s no way she will remain indifferent. We are programmed to enjoy communicating with people who like us.

6. Accept her criticism with a smile

So she can be a little rough sometimes—so what? Learning to take criticism with a smile (whether you will learn from it or just let it go) is a key quality you need in life. It will help you in many different situations, including this one. Don’t forget that usually what people say is not about you, it’s about them. So let her deal with her own issues and just smile next time.

7. Bring her flowers

Works the same way as compliments do. All women like flowers—and even if they don’t, they like what flowers represent. Show her that you’re happy to see her and appreciate her for all she’s done (if only for giving life of the man of your dreams). Make sure you learn what she likes—unfortunately, flowers that someone finds ugly can only do damage. Also, always give an uneven number of blossoms (because an even number of flowers is considered bad luck).

8. Ask her questions

It’s an old trick some students use when they’re trying to please their teachers. Everyone like answering questions about their opinions or things they know about. Don’t be afraid to ask her anything you think will help her shine and compliment her on her smart answers. What is the recipe for that delicious meal? Do you like that movie? What do you think is the best way to raise children? Then just sit back and listen to your relations improving.

9. Compliment her son

She gave him life, raised him and basically built the foundation for him to be who he is today. She loves him so much and she’s probably sure you can’t appreciate him for all he is. So show her she’s wrong. When you’re with your in-laws, constantly find chances to compliment your husband. They will surely notice how lucky their son is for having a woman like you in his life (and so will he).

10. If you can, don’t sleep under one roof when visiting

If your partner’s parents live in a different city (and don’t you consider yourself lucky for that!), chances are that you stay in their guest bedroom when visiting. If there’s any chance for you to avoid doing that, this may take the pressure off your not-so-perfect relationship with his mother.

Of course, this one is tricky, as it can quickly turn against you (it’s bad enough your in-laws only see you once in a blue moon, but now you’re avoiding them while visiting‽) – but there are ways to make it work. “We’re trying to give you a grandchild and we need some privacy” works well. “The baby is crying all night these days and we wouldn’t want to bother you” does too.

11. Remind your husband to call his mother

We discussed this already: she feels threatened by you. You come from nowhere and try to steal her little boy’s attention. However, if she gets all the attention she needs from him, she wouldn’t be feeling this way. Remind him to call her—if not every day, then often enough. This will make her happy and when she’s happy, she won’t feel the need to sadden your life.

12. Trust her with the grandchildren

Sure, every grandmother loves her grandchildren and if you let her spend some time with them, she’d love that (not to mention that you can get some time off). But when we say “trust her with the grandchildren,” we actually have a bit more than that in mind.

Ask her advice on how to raise them—I’m not saying listen to all of it—but maybe there’s something useful there. And the second you do find that useful thing, mention it all the time, thank her and compliment her on all occasions: “Gosh, how difficult it’d be to make them go to bed if it wasn’t for that trick (mother in law name) told me!”

13. Just make him happy

Don’t get us wrong, but there’s a reason why men (and women) like it when mommy’s there. Mommy takes care of you and loves you unconditionally. She doesn’t always know what’s best for you, but that’s exactly what she means. You can trust her.

Of course, you don’t want to be your partner’s mother, but maybe there are some qualities you can pick up from her. Why not cook him a great meal from time to time? Or support him, just for the heck of it? Sometimes, what looks like a difficult mother in law is really just someone who is honestly worried their son won’t get all he needs from you. And the shocking truth is they may be right. So just make him happy. This will show her!

14. Emotional needs

If your spouse gets his or her emotional needs met in his or her relationship with parents instead of with you, there’s a problem.

You may even feel as if your spouse is having an affair. Sometimes this problem begins when a wife feels frustrated over her husband’s seeming lack of interest in conversing about her day; she starts talking with her parents instead. Sometimes the husband is the frustrated one; it’s common for mother and son to have long or frequent conversations that leave the wife feeling ignored. Neither scenario is appropriate. Respect for each other is the key. In this situation, respect might require that the spouse maintaining an overly close relationship with his or her parents will decrease that contact in order to show love for the spouse.“

Sandra Lundberg, from the book, The First Five Years of Marriage

So far, so good. By now, you’ve identified the reason for your problems and have learned a few tricks about solving them. You’d think that would be it, but nah-ah. Any other topic might have been concluded, but when we’re talking about a difficult mother in law, there’s something you should always watch out for: if you don’t get her to like you more, at least don’t annoy her further. Here are the absolute must-read Don’ts when it comes to your partner’s mother.

You should absolutely never . . .

1. Offend her son in front of her

It seems obvious enough, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, I’ve been to many family gatherings where I’ve heard someone’s wife trashing her husband with her mother in law standing right there. Not that it’s ever a good idea to talk like that about someone you chose to be with, but when his mother’s there . . . Just don’t. The only thing you can achieve is to make other people dislike you too.

2. Give her cooking tips (or any tips for that matter)

Are you trying to tell her that you can do something—anything—better than her? Really? Is that what you’re trying to say? You probably do a lot of things better than her, we get that, but she doesn’t need to know that. And when it comes to cooking, oh dear God, don’t interfere! If she is the cooking type of mother, chances are you actually have to take lessons from her! After all, your partner grew with her meals.

3. Undermine her advice

On the other side, when she gives you advice, the only right thing to do is to take it and say “Thank you!” Obviously, it’s not necessary to do what she’s told you, but it wouldn’t hurt you to react in the following way: “Hmm, that’s actually not a bad idea. I have to try it out.” Of course, don’t be too cocky. Regardless of how much you dislike your mother in law, always stop to consider the advice she (or anyone else) is offering you. Maybe it’s well worth your time.

4. Start a fight (even when she’s being a pain in the a**)

I know that sometimes this is a true test for your emotional intelligence, but whatever she says or does . . . let it go. There are very, very few occasions in which it’s actually worth it to argue with your mother in law—so few, that they’re not worth mentioning. So just remember this general rule instead. Whatever problems you’ve had before a big fight will only become worse after a big fight.

5. Compare yourself to another daughter-in-law

It’s easy for us, people, to try and compare ourselves with others, even when it’s so obviously the wrong thing to do. Everyone is different and everyone likes different people for different things. If your husband has a married brother, it could be obvious for you that your mother in law likes his wife better than you, but you shouldn’t put your focus there.

So what if it’s true? Everyone will be put in a very awkward position if you ever make that statement (even as a hint) so it’s best to keep quiet and accept your sister-in-law for what she is, not for the way your mother in law sees her.

6. Live with her

The general rule is this: absolutely never, under any circumstances should you live under one roof with your mother in law. Temporarily, because there’s no other option (and I mean “we’d be sleeping on a bench in the park if it wasn’t for her” out of options)—then maybe.

But for as little time as possible. The thing is, even if she was your best friend, it’s never a good idea for two generations to live under one roof, except when the one generation is not old enough to drink yet. But if she’s not your best friend, which is more probable, things get even worse. Just don’t do this to yourself.

Often new husbands and wives assume they’ll be loved and accepted by in-laws on the merit of having married the in-laws’ child. This may be the case, but it usually takes time to establish trust and respect.“

Romie Hurley, one of the authors of the book, The First Five Years of Marriage

And finally, know that sometimes things are better left the way they are. Don’t forget that if your mother in law likes you better, she may be calling you more or wanting to spend more time with you—which may not be what you really want. So for some of you, it may be best to just read the first part of the article, get the clarity on what’s really going on beneath the surface and why, use it to keep calm and just move on with your life.

Whatever the case, we hope what we had to say about a difficult mother in law helped you improve the relationship you have with yours and as a result, have happier and more peaceful family life.

A mother gives you a life, a mother in law gives you her life. ~ Amit Kalantri (Tweet this)


About the Author

Maya helps women be in happy relationships while having amazing careers. You can see more about what she does on

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